No, not the old Ford Zodiac but a movie surely beloved by conspiracy theorists, telling as it does the story behind one man’s obsession with finding the killer who for a number of years terrorised areas of California, but in such a way that the police investigation was stymied and records split between different counties. The heartbeat of Zodiac is Robert Graysmith, who was in real life and in his screen alter ego a political cartoonist on the San Francisco Chronicle, and by pestering Paul Avery, the chief reporter assigned to the Zodiac case developed an obsession that eventually cost him his marriage and saw him getting heavy breathing calls, presumably from Zodiac himself, the serial killer certainly responsible for 5 deaths and maybe anything up to the 37 he claimed, many unproven.
Avery blew up and became an alcoholic, and the police files were eventually archived despite the case remaining open, but Graysmith remained resolute in pursuit of the man he came to believe was the perpetrator, and eventually published a best-selling book about the case, which in turn forms the basis of David Fincher’s beguilingly detailed and compelling movie.
Sadly for Graysmith, the evidence against Arthur Leigh Allen, and the only available partial DNA evidence appeared to clear Allen in 2002 – assuming the DNA was actually that of Zodiac. This does not prevent James Vanderbilt’s script from leaning heavily towards Allen’s guilt, though I doubt very much whether Allen’s actual interview with the police was so heavily laden with clues pointing directly to his being the perpetrator.
Dramatically, it works to a tee – especially the final scene when Jake Gyllenhall’s Graysmith walks into the DIY store where Allen works. Their eyes meet; Allen knows Graysmith knows, and Graysmith knows he knows. But never did the Zodiac kill again, and indeed Allen died of a fatal heart attack before he could be interviewed again by the police. Graysmith is not afraid of the truth, though he is comically spooked only once in the movie when Charles Fleischer’s creepy movie buff Bob Vaughn does a very good impression of casting himself as the Zodiac without ever putting a foot out of place.
Precisely how far the fictionalisation goes, weaving in and out of the facts, we can never be quite sure, but I am very certain that this long movie (157 minutes in its release format) is utterly fascinating and watchable, helped greatly by an excellent ensemble cast including Gyllenhall, Robert Downey Jr, Chloe Sevigny, Mark Ruffalo (also very good in Shutter Island), Brian Cox, John Caroll Lynch, Philip Baker Hall and many more. The characters have weight and purpose, none are flimsy cardboard cutouts.
Whatever the qualms about fictionalisation, Vanderbilt’s script and handling of minute details which add weight to the circumstantial evidence, is precise and beautifully timed. Flincher, to give him credit, builds the suspense and recreates with panache an atmospheric San Francisco of the late 60s and early 70s, gripped by fear of the serial killer who chooses to call himself Zodiac. Recommended.